[Book Review] Crimson Crown and the book review that wasn’t

Note from the desk of CanaryTheFirst: I was browsing ancient drafts in the depths of our reading coal mines when I came across this review from theothercanary. It’s about time for it to see the light of day!

Book review: The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima

The Crimson Crown (Seven Realms, #4)I started reading this book, but abandoned it for meatier tales like Dresden. When I finally got back to it, I thought that’d I’d made it at least halfway through. Imagine my horror to reopen it on my Nook to discover that I was on the paltry page 68. Out of 448. I almost abandoned it again in favor of rereading Behemoth for the zillionth time.

EDIT: I wrote that much as an intro while I was still reading the book. Then on page 240, I did abandon the book to read Behemoth again. And Cold Days. And Beautiful Creatures. And Deadline. And a whole schlew of nonfiction goodies. And upon trying to return to this book, I simply couldn’t make myself do it.

Based on the stellar ratings on GoodReads, I’m among a small minority who did not utterly and completely love this book. I can see why so many love the Seven Realms stories. I did too. You can read my reviews of past books here:

But as far as the Crimson Crown goes, it’s time for me to declare this book a dead canary.

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[ Book Review ] There’s a Dead Canary in the Coal Mine

Meg’s Review: Variant by Robison Wells

Audiobook read by Michael Goldstrom 

When we made the tagline for The Canary Review, I had thought it was just sort of a fun phrase. After all, we were still selecting books that had a lot of promise, ones that we would most likely love and be excited to pass on to all of you.

But let me tell you, Canaries: I took a bullet for you on this one.

When I was about halfway through Variant, I shambled out to the web to see what others were saying about it. One review on BN.com opens as thus: “No matter what anyone tells you, it is unique and original and fresh and omg and thrilling, but it is not dystopian.”

That quote is approximately 1/6th correct. I’ll let you guess which part that is at the end of the review.

Variant opens with Benson Fisher  happily on his way to a new boarding school. He is an orphan who has long been caught up in the foster care system and is excited to find a place that was geared towards helping out those in similar situations. But when he reaches Maxfield Academy, he finds out the truth: something is terribly, terribly wrong with the school. Besides the subtle tension between cliques and the lack of any adult supervision (besides the security cameras everywhere), there is the constant threat of Detention for rule breaking. And it’s implied early on that it’s not the fluffy, go-write-some-lines sort of Detention. Continue reading

[ Book Review ] Name the Wind…ow.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

(The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One)

Audiobook read by Nick Podehl

This review is a tour. I am your guide.

Please be advised: this trip will involve vague spoilers. Keep your mouse inside the window at all times.

If you look to the left, you will see the main character introduced, Kvothe (aka, Kote, The Flame, E’lir, Shadicar, Reshi, The Thunderer, Macho Mage, Child Prodigy, Gary Stu, etc) in sweeping purple prose flowers all the way down your field of vision.

As our tour bus takes us into town, we see the inn where Kvothe pretends to be an innkeeper, hiding from his past. If we pause and wait a chapter or so, several beasties will appear and be taken care of, and a man shall be rescued from certain death. At this point, it’d make sense to take a stroll to the giftshop and deeper into this intrigue of hiding and seeking — but no, the tour bus must move on…deep into Kvothe’s childhood as he recounts his life story to a traveling chronicler.

But worry not. There will be rest stops every few chapters — courtesy of Interludes Inc. — and everyone will have a chance to stretch their legs and listen to Kvothe’s apprentice ask pertinent questions about the plot. Why did you stay in that city if it was such a terrible place?  or This story doesn’t seem to make sense. Let me give you a chance to explain, o autho– err, I mean, Kvothe.”

It would be remiss of me as a guide if I don’t describe the architecture of this storyland. Continue reading

[ Book Review ] Meg’s Very First DNF

Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen (Did Not Finish)

Read by James Langton

(A review in which Meg spends a lot of time comparing literature to video games. She was just that bored.)

My review is going to start with a premise that is also a chunk of advice for all future writers. If you’re going to borrow/steal, at least make it entertaining.

The basic premise of Here, There Be Dragons, is the existence of a magical land (The Archipelago of Dreams) in which every land ever imagined or committed to pen exists and is in danger of falling under the command of the evil Winter King.

So far so good. Everyone loves a great conglomeration of well-loved tales. What’s the problem?

First, by “every land ever imagined or committed to pen,” I mean every British story that has persisted longer than half a century.

Within the first few hours of listening, scenes/characters from Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Narnia (though the fauns may have just been a Greek myth throwback), Sherlock Holmes and many other fairy tales marched across the plot-scape. One of main characters introduced wears clothing that is a mish-mash of every Hans Christen Anderson and Grimm Brother’s fairytale.

Had I known that this was a metaphor-times-8-million for the rest of the book, I would have stopped right there. And admittedly, that may have been part of my problem: I really don’t like any of the stories listed in the paragraph above.

If I had a deeper love for Brit lit, then maybe I would have found the references a little quainter. And maybe if the story had simply brushed by the other tales, paid them a passing tip-of-the-hat, it would have been like a delightful game of hide-and-seek to find your favorite Hobbit. But that wasn’t the case.

But it wasn’t the “borrowing” that did me in.

Recently, Mass Effect hit the video-game world with a bang and a spaceship. In this space opera, Commander Shepard fights off an invading band of uber-AI aliens while playing politics to the many races  of the galaxy, most of whom hate humans simply for being whiny meatbags.

When this epic scifi story got to the shelves, one thing became glaringly obvious: the game designer, BioWare, had plucked liberally from all of the great science-fiction staples: Stargate, Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, with some Space Odyssey and Asimov sprinkled in.

And for taking all those elements and splicing them into something original, BioWare created a phenomenon.

How did Mass Effect manage to create a great, captivating story while Here, There be Dragons did not? I suspect the ability to shoot aliens has something to do with it.

But surely the story borrowing wasn’t that bad, Meg. You just pointed out it can be done well.

Okay, take this example:

Our group of characters must get into a mountain pass where a dragon lives. But they get stuck at the front door because the way in is barricaded and can only be opened by an elvish magic word that the leader of the group has suddenly forgotten. Some of you may recall a very similar scene in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (especially since that is the precise place where there is a clear deviation of script between the theatrical and extended cuts — yes, I have seen them that many times).

Shortly after that, they meet the dragon who begins to talk about how the real ruler of the Archipelago of Dreams must wear a magic ring. That’s right. A ring.

Oh, and the elves and dwarves have special magic rings, too, donchaknow. As soon as I hit that part, I was unenthusiastically waiting for the dragon to proclaim, “One ring to rule them!”  It never quite got to that point, but it tottered close enough that I had to call the book dead as a DNF.

Mind, I really love retellings of popular stories. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked remains one of my favorite books and Robin McKinley’s many forays into retelling famous fairy tales make a fangirl out of me. But what makes those stand out is the 100% commitment to the story. When Maguire wrote Wicked, it wasn’t about making fan-fiction nods to other versions: it was about reinventing a world that was already so well-loved that there was no choice but to go-big-or-go-home.

In Here, There Be Dragons, the whole thing felt too tame, too contained. It was just not engaging in the way that Wicked or Mass Effect are. A retelling is about reinventing a loved story, not simply rehashing it. We have reviews and cliff-notes for that.

About halfway through the audiobook, every time someone said/thought the word ‘dragon,’ my mind took a full-pelt sprint to my basement where Dragon Age II was sleeping in my Xbox. There be dragons there, too (and a whole bunch more theme stealing by BioWare, though this time from high fantasy classics). And in the game, at least, the dragons want to eat my face rather than serve me tea.

Simple equation:

Face-chomping dragons > Mildly British dragons.

Conclusion:

I may meander back to the book at some point. It’s not completely terrible; the novel is one of the rare instances where it is solely the story that kills the book, rather than the manner in which it is written. Hopefully Owens, who has a lovely way with prose, offers up something better in the next go around.

[ Book Review ] When a good blurb leads to a dead canary

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

(a book written in eight weeks)

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack in San Francisco, the tech-savvy, teenage Marcus Yellow and his friends find themselves in the struggle between what is “politically necessary” and the unalienable rights of the individual. They take the fight against Homeland Security to the digital world.

Can a few school kids make a difference?

Do I recommend this book? It depends. Does the small speech excerpt below do it for you?

“My name is Marcus Yallow. I was tortured by my country, but I still love it here. I’m seventeen years old. I want to grow up in a free country. I want to live in a free country.” (290)

If yes, please feel free to ignore my review and read the book (you can download it free and legally here). If you’re not completely convinced, continue.

This is a review requested by a friend who said: “Read something by Cory Doctorow – I want to know if I should.”

The Review:

It is not a good sign when you hit page 27 and you already have enough material to make up an entire review. I decided to trudge on to page 50 just to see if things improved — an explosion of action at that point convinced me to slog my way to page 75. But my dedication just made my list of problems so long that I had to cease and desist. It’s for your, the reader’s, benefit that I stopped. Anything longer than this and you would have died by proxy.

Where to begin? Perhaps at my nonplussed reaction at the awards the book was listed (or nominated) for, or the blazing critical reception it received. On reading the rave reviews, I began to doubt my sanity. Was I even reading the same book?

Exhibit 1:

“But to his credit, Doctorow weaves a captivating story that raises serious political issues without hitting you over the head with the hammer of civil liberty.” From SF signal

From Little Brother:

“I use the Xnet because I believe in freedom and the Constitution of the United States of America. I use Xnet because the DHS has turned my city into a police-state where we’re all suspected terrorists. I use Xnet because I think you can’t defend freedom by tearing up the Bill of Rights.” (192)

Exhibit 2:

“Marcus is a wonderfully developed character: hyperaware of his surroundings, trying to redress past wrongs, and rebelling against authority.” – School Library Journal

From Little Brother:

“The Man was always coming down on me, just because I go through school firewalls like wet kleenex, spoof the gait-recognition software, and nuke the snitch chips they track us with. […] I raised my arms over my head like a prizefighter and made my exit from Social Studies and began the perp-walk to the office. […] Spending Fridays at school was teh suck anyway, and I was glad of the excuse to make my escape.” (22)

Exhibit 3:

“I’d recommend Little Brother over pretty much any book I’ve read this year, and I’d want to get it into the hands of as many smart 13 year olds, male and female, as I can.” – Neil Gaiman

It’s interesting to note that Neil Gaiman is referenced (and quoted) in the introduction of the Creative Commons version of the book. Also, each chapter of the Commons version starts with a shout-out to (and the address and phone number of) Doctorow’s favorite bookstores.

Little Brother says, question everything.

Exhibit 4: 

 “I was completely hooked in the first few minutes. Great work.” –Mitch Kapor, inventor of Lotus 1-2-3 and co-founder of the EFF, on Little Brother.

I just don’t…I don’t know where I went wrong in reading this book. Maybe if I’d have stuck to the end, I’d have had a stunning revelation that this is the most evocative dystopian struggle against encroaching totalitarianism since Orwell put pen to paper. Perhaps 1984 does meet Catcher in the Rye in Little Brother.  But I couldn’t finish, and because of this, I will refrain from addressing any of the socio-political or thematic issues I noticed in the first 75 pages. I’ll talk about the story instead, and the many things that made me sad inside.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Continue reading